Music

Keeping Jazz Real

Jazz pianist Benny Green draws from the masters to inspire his hard-bopping originals.

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Hot off the 55th Monterey Jazz Festival's grueling North American tour — 40 cities in 23 states — jazz pianist Benny Green is back in his Berkeley home for barely more than a pit stop. On the heels of releasing his self-produced album, Magic Beans, Green is generating gigs for his Benny Green Trio, with tour dates in Japan and the United States, plus recording a new album of original tunes in Santa Cruz — all before playing four shows at Yoshi's in Oakland on June 27 and 28.

"It was great," Green said about the Monterey Jazz Festival's nine-week tour. "But I was glad to go back to work with my trio because I was inspired to rededicate myself to practicing."

In light of Green's 43 years at the keyboard, his mention of practice is both humorous and indicative of his hard-driving passion. Expressions of overflowing gratitude fill any conversation with Green. Regarding his reverence for the silvery pure sound of Blue Note records passed on to him by his late father, his years playing with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and his getting back into the drill of rehearsals with his band, Green said: "I'm blessed: I get to do what I love for a living."

Since his mother signed him up for classical piano lessons at the age of seven, Green has tickled the keyboards at Berkeley High, Yoshi's, and various Bay Area clubs, and jammed with jazz luminaries like Betty Carter and Blakey. A long trail of albums and awards as leader, songwriter, and sideman fill his hard-bopping wake. He cites Thelonius Monk and McCoy Tyner as his heroes, as much for their historic impact on jazz as for their influence on his career.

"I've been on a mission to keep it real for jazz," Green said. "The most enjoyable musicians have learned unspoken sensitivity and to revel in communal interactions that humble them to the greater environment."

Still, the desire he discovered as a boy is "the seed that drives me, even now," he admitted. Reviewers have called his playing "elegantly nonchalant" (Chicago Tribune), his style "fluent and streamlined" (The New York Times), and often note his quarter century on the professional circuit playing "technically superb jazz" (New York Daily News).

Green explained that the Japanese tour will be the perfect opportunity to unravel the harmonies and tones of the trio's new music before recording it. "Japanese people are less inhibited when they come to a musical venue. They show joy in a spontaneous way that touches my heart. It shows me how magical music is, right in the moment." In performance, it's clear: At the keyboard, Green responds like a sponge — absorbing audience reactions, soaking up the sounds of drummer Kenny Washington and bassist David Wong, compressing the rich heritage drawn from years of listening, practicing, performing, and ruminating, then releasing the cumulative sonic energy into the atmosphere. It's an explosion: not loud, but rhapsodic.

"The piano feels more and more like my friend," Green said about turning fifty and continuing to explore his instrument. "Instead of hitting the piano, I treat it more gently. It's internal and subtle."

As a songwriter, Green avoids lyrics, preferring the way instrumentation allows a listener an individual, autonomous experience. But in conversation, he's poetic and translucently articulate, so the temptation to ask him to use words to describe a track on Magic Beans is irresistible. Reluctantly, he said that "La Portuguesa" consists of three interconnected moods, then proceeds to define them using the language of place, not mood: a road at twilight, a witch's home, a bedroom in which a summer romance occurs. The words are as evocative as Green's approach. "When I listen, the most engaging mystery of music is never really explained to me, but it's real — and real to each of us," he said.

Magic Beans runs the stylistic gamut — from Latin-infused skirmishes in the title track and "Jackie McLean" to the economy of "Vanished" to the Ellington nod within the rhythms of "Paraphrase." Like Green's previous albums, Magic Beans features crystalline technique, but perhaps because the writing bug bit him fast and hard, he said, his otherwise cool style smolders.

Green also spends an enormous amount of time listening: with discernment, when self-evaluating his own recordings; and with awe, when listening to the classic Fifties and Sixties tunes he adores. "There's a straightforward honesty to that music," Green said. "It's not unlike Baroque in its purity."

Green admitted he's not overly curious about every technological advance, like the latest recording gear or streaming app. He said he pays close attention if anything important "breaks through," but is far more focused on hearing new truths in his melodies or stumbling upon unexpected insights with his trio.

"I'm the same soul I've always been," Green said with a laugh. "I'm careful, resourceful, aware of my body, and what the situation is calling for. As a performer, it's my responsibility to bring the audience something worthwhile. I try to give a human, meaningful experience, daily."

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